It remains pathetic that sitting councilors are apparently so confused by basic ethics that legislative clarification is required in order for our elected officials to discern conflict of interest or the appearance thereof. But government’s first order should be to ensure its own effective and just operation. In that sense, Romero’s proposal, co-sponsored by Councilors Patti Bushee and Chris Calvert, as well as Mayor David Coss, falls in the category of better late than never.
Romero put forth the new ordinance in the wake of Councilor Matthew Ortiz’ mind-boggling failure to comprehend that his status as attorney for scandal-ridden Advantage Asphalt should have prompted him to vocally recuse himself when committees on which he sits were considering Advantage for contracts worth millions of dollars.
The new ordinance, which is really just a collection of amendments to current sections of the city code, is expected to begin moving through city committees and toward a council vote this September.
Two facets of the ordinance stand out as the most significant changes. First, and most obviously, any public official with even a “perceived” conflict of interest will be mandated to recuse him or herself, either orally or in writing, from discussions related to the conflict. Second, the city’s nearly useless Ethics and Rules Committee, (its most recent meeting, on Aug. 18, was cancelled for lack of a quorum) would have its ethical duties subsumed by a modified version of the citizens’ Ethics and Campaign Review Board, which also considers campaign issues for elections.
It’s hard to anticipate any real resistance to the ordinance, and one would have to bet on it passing unanimously. However, some observers have noted missing components that should be added. Most blatantly, while the ordinance would require officials to recuse themselves, there are no stated consequences for failing to do so. Calvert told The Santa Fe New Mexican he intends to raise the issue when councilors consider the ordinance, but he has yet to offer solutions for an appropriate punishment. Let me be of assistance here: Keeping in mind that identifying the appearance of conflict of interest and speaking up to recuse oneself are closer to kindergarten than rocket science, the punishment should be immediate dismissal from one’s position, pending an investigation by the Ethics and Campaign Review Board.
Just because we need a law to spell it out for people doesn’t make it difficult: You schmooze, you lose.
Believe it or not, a hazy understanding of ethics is a problem many municipal governments face. Increasingly, cities around the country are mandating annual ethics courses for their elected officials. It’s kind of a horrifying state of affairs to imagine forcing those who ought to be the best and brightest among us to spend an hour each year taking an online ethics test (Your friend drops $10 on the ground. Do you A. Pick it up and return it, B. Pick it up and put it in your own pocket or C. Nudge it under the sofa with your foot so you can retrieve it later?). Times being what they are, however, it appears a lowest common denominator solution is required. If our public officials sign off on having taken such a test annually, at least they can’t later claim that the ethics of a situation are “unclear.”
Combine such testing with the Ethics and Campaign Review Board’s mandate to “give advisory opinions to any person requesting an opinion as to whether his or her own future conduct would violate the Code of Ethics, the Campaign Code or the Public Campaign Finance Code,” and all room for an official to claim confusion is effectively removed.
Some complain that Romero’s ordinance does not give the Ethics and Campaign Review Board power to initiate investigations unless there is a complaint, but I don’t see that as a problem. What should such a body be motivated by? An internal hunch? A vendetta held by one of its members? Complaints are the logical initiation point of an investigation. As long as all citizens’ complaints are handled with equal gravity, there’s no need to give the board the option to investigate whomever, whenever.
But the ramifications must be made clear for officials who violate ethical standards that the public entrusts them to uphold. If the city council is too wishy-washy to spell out its own potential punishment, it at least needs to empower the Ethics and Campaign Review Board with the ability to determine said punishment, and task it with clarifying the details as its first order of business.
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